Murano, and why it’s definitely worth a visit.
You have probably heard about Murano, and if so, you have connected the name with Glass. That is because Murano Glass is world famous, and the history of the island and the glassmaking techniques is almost as fascinating as that of the Republic itself. Murano is just a stone’s throw away from Venice. It is easy to get to, and you don’t really need to plan the visit, just jump on the Vaporetto and go. Read on and we will explore the origins of Murano glass, how it is made today, how to identify authentic Murano glass, and what else you can do and see on the island.
The history of Murano
Just like Venice, Murano isn’t one island. Instead, it is a group of seven islands connected by bridges. The very first settlers were Roman fishers and rangers. The same people who populated Rialto. Then came the years of growing and building, and Murano was just another of the many settlements in the lagoon that would later become the Republic of Venice.
In the 8th and 9th centuries, it was an important stage for all those escaping various aggressions from the mainland. The refugees fled to Torcello, then further south to Murano before ending up in Rialto/Venice.
The island had a certain independence during the first centuries. At least until 1171 when it was incorporated into the Castello Sestiere. Still, the independence was reinstituted a hundred years later, and from 1275, Murano had its own government… Sort of. And they also had their own money… Sort of.
The history of Murano Glass and how the island became famous all over the world.
The art of molding and blowing glass probably originated in the middle east. As Venice had close contact with the countries in the eastern Mediterranean, La Serenissima was one of the first in Europe to learn and master this strange handicraft. Small workshops started to show up in Venice in the 13th century, and the many glassblowers competed for the rich customers wanting these new and exciting objects.
But the houses in the city in those days were still mainly made out of wood. The many stone palaces weren’t really up yet, and all these furnaces around Venice started to become a hazard. And in fact, quite a few fires originating from the glass workshops had already happened. So, in 1291, a State decree forced all glassmaking to be transferred to Murano. Out there, they figured any fire would be restricted. And that was the beginning of the Famous Murano Glass.
The Murano Glass history until 1737.
The early Venetian glass wasn’t like the artful and colored sculptures you mostly see today. The first century’s glass tradition was mostly transparent, white glass, crystal. The Venetian glass industry produced all kinds of items, even window glass. The uniqueness was that it was extremely clear, without impurities. And it was sought after in all of Europe.
With time, the income from glass production became so huge that the Republic had to step in to regulate the economy and protect the knowledge it was based upon. They did so by granting privileges to the glassmakers, and by punishing disloyalty… The carrot and the stick.
The glassmakers of Murano were allowed to form their own aristocracy, and even to marry within the Venetian noble class. As nobles, they enjoyed diplomatic immunity and many other advantages. And of course, they made a lot of money.
On the stick side, it was strictly forbidden for a glass master to leave Venice. They had to stay within the City inside the lagoon. Eventually, the law was reinforced to a point where it became punishable with death to try to leave the city.
These laws were generally respected, a Murano glass master wouldn’t have much reason to leave such a profitable and appreciated trade anyway. But in 1630 it finally happened, probably because of the Bubonic Plague. The secret glass techniques were scattered over Europe, and the decline of Murano Glass had begun.
Murano Glass history after 1737.
At the beginning of the 18th century, the Murano glass industry was at an all-time low. Anyone could make glass and refined objects, even as far away as in northern Europe. The finest products didn’t come from Venice anymore, but the clearest and most sought-after glass was made in Bohemia. There they made fine crystal, which was almost invisible and so hard it could be cut like diamonds. Royalties and nobles from all over Europe wanted Bohemian crystal as jewelry.
So, in 1733, Giuseppe Briati from Venice went to Bohemia, learned their techniques, and came back. He used the same procedure to make glass similar to the Bohemian crystal, and the success was huge. So big in fact that his fellow glass master colleagues burnt his workshop to the ground, from envy of his fortune. As a result, the republic granted him the extraordinary authorization to move his workshop to Venice.
Briati learned how to make Bohemian-style crystal by adding Potassium nitrate instead of lead, as is the tradition in Bohemian crystal. That meant he could create crystals as beautiful as in Bohemia but at a lower cost.
And the glass industry in Murano boomed again.
Murano Glass’s remarkable sales and economy continued until the Republic’s end in 1797. After that came a century of occupation by foreign powers and instability. Many furnaces went out and the workshops closed.
It wasn’t until the beginning of 1900 that the craft slowly began to revive a third time.
Again, new techniques and styles were created, such as millefiori (thousand flowers), filigrana (filigree), lattimo (milk glass), and aventurine (glass with gold flecks). And this is when the modern Murano glass-making styles became famous all over the world once again.
Glass production today
Murano glass is still made today by skilled artisans who follow the traditional methods and techniques passed down from generation to generation. There are about 40 active glass factories on the island, some of which display the glass masters at work and you can admire their craftsmanship. And be sure to visit the Glass Museum, to learn more about this amazing trade.
How to identify Murano Glas – The Curse of Counterfeit Glass
If you want to buy any of the glass marvels, you need to be cautious though. Unfortunately, not all the glass sold in Murano or in Venice labeled Murano Glass is authentic. No less than 80% is not. Very often it’s easy to tell if the little glass piece sold in the souvenir shop for 5 euros is genuine or not, but sometimes it’s harder. Even the luxurious Art gallery in the center can display counterfeit products. In that case, sometimes with a higher price than the real thing bought from the Murano master.
The fake products are often of poor quality, but can sometimes seem well made to an inexperienced eye. Do not rely on your own perception if you’re not very familiar with glass and its various qualities and styles. And definitely do not trust the millions of fake quality stamps, like the ones here on the left. Instead, follow these few guidelines:
- If you are into glass and understand the different aspects of glass making, try to check the quality. Real Murano glass is smooth, shiny, and flawless, with no bubbles or cracks. The colors are vibrant and well-mixed, and the patterns are intricate and consistent.
- Buy from reputable shops, see further down. Even better is to buy directly from the glass factories or artists in Murano. You will be able to see the workshop, and they will give you a better price than the exact product sold in Venice. But even so, don’t let your guard down. Even the fancy glass shop on the luxury street sells expertly crafted products, well-made glass, but glass that is, in fact, not from Murano.
- Look for a certificate of authenticity. From 1994, the Murano Glass stamp was a single sign. But from 2016 the sign also includes the code of the master, as well as the code for the object. The certificate is in red or blue. You can check the information here.
- There is a similar certificate for shops. The sign should be applied on the window easily visible from the outside. Here’s a list of shops.
- You should exercise sound caution though. The certificate is issued by the Consorzio Promovetro Murano and just like all these things, politics, economics, and a certain club mentality are involved. That means, not all good Murano glass has the stamp, and not everything with the stamp is good Murano glass. The certificate is a good quality guarantee though, and if you buy glass without authorization from the Consortium, know that the risk is greater. Still, if you know what you’re doing, you can still find unique objects made with true Murano glass-making mastery outside the official channels.
And if you still don’t trust either these certifications or your own capability to judge the authenticity, there still is a way to be absolutely safe… You can make your own glass! Maybe it won’t come out as perfectly as you would like it, but it will be 100% made in Murano.
Wave Murano Glass factory next to Palazzo da Mula offers courses in glass mastery. Prices start from €225.
Murano – Besides the glass
Murano is not only about glass. It is also a charming place to explore and enjoy its culture and nature. Compared to Venice, Murano is a bit less stuffed with attraction. Most circles around the making of glass, and unfortunately it has become rather touristic lately. Hoards of visitors are walking the Fondamenta dei vetrai, stepping into some exclusive shop, watching a furnace, buying some cheap souvenirs, eating ice cream, and then moving on.
If you want some more, walk ahead to the end of the street. There and few steps ahead you have some of the few historically interesting attractions of the island:
The Campo Santo Stefano.
It is a charming and picturesque spot on the island. The square is surrounded by colorful buildings and features a beautiful church dedicated to Santo Stefano, the patron saint of the island. The church dates back to the 14th century and is built in Gothic style. The bell tower is a reference point as it stands like a birthday candlelight in the middle of all the reddish brick buildings.
The Palazzo da Mula.
Around the corner, you have one of the oldest and best-preserved palaces of Murani, Palazzo da Mula. The first palace was built in the 13th century, but its name comes from the Da Mula family. They bought it in 1621, and the current style and architecture is from the 17th century, Unfortunately, it isn’t visitable in any formal way. You can walk in and stroll around, as it is open to the public functioning as the registry office. There are plans on making it a cultural center of sorts, but for now, there is nothing there. It’s best appreciated from the bridge, enjoying the facade.
The Basilica of Santa Maria e San Donato.
The Basilica of Santa Maria e San Donato is one of the oldest buildings in the lagoon. Unconfirmed datings are from the middle of the 7th century. It was overhauled around 850, and then more thoroughly rebuilt in the 12th century. The basilica is famous for its mosaic pavement and depicts scenes from the Old Testament and the life of Mary. The basilica also houses the relics of San Donato of Arezzo, who was martyred in the 4th century by a dragon, according to legend. The basilica’s facade features a striking geometric pattern of white and red bricks.
Murano Glass Museum.
The museum showcases the evolution of glassmaking techniques and styles from ancient times to the present day. It focuses in a particular way on the Murano glass tradition from the 13th century. The museum displays glass objects, ranging from delicate beads and jewelry to chandeliers and sculptures. They also offer guided tours, workshops, and demonstrations of glassblowing and molding.
How to get to Murano.
You get there by normal Vaporetto. From Fondamente Nove, you can take the small 4.1, the 4.2, or the big 12. Number 12 then continues to Burano further north.
From Piazzale Roma, you take 4.1 or 3.
It’s a bit complicated… 4.1 and 4.2 circumnavigate the city but in opposite directions. When they arrive at Fondamenta Nove they turn towards Murano. That means you can get on them at any point before arriving at Fondamente Nove and from there, you will just ride along to Murano.
Some 4.1s part from P.le Roma, but does not stop at Fondamente Nove. Ask the ACTV personnel.
The 3 never stops at Fondamente Nove but continues directly to Murano. Nr 3 also makes a complete circle on Murano, around the canals before it returns to P.le Roma.
For number 12, Fondamente Nove is the terminus, and if you’re changing to 4.1 or 4.2 for further transport, they part from different piers, A, B, C, or D. (They change that every now and then, so, again, ask).
If you’re moving on to Burano from Murano, the Vaporetto is nr. 12, the big one. It parts from Murano Faro. Just to be clear, when coming back again from Burano don’t get off at Murano. Just stay on and nr. 12 will bring you to Fondamente Nove.
Where to stay in Murano.
Well, nowhere really. It doesn’t really make much sense to stay at a hotel in Murano unless you’re a glass fanatic who wants to dedicate your time completely to the handicraft of Glass making. Otherwise, the only hotel I can recommend is this one:
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Casa Sulla Laguna
It’s a beautiful, somewhat secluded Guest house, situated on the southern tip of the eastern island, overlooking not only the lagoon but Venice too. All services and features, and possibly a little cheaper than the same standard in Venice.
Check to see if Casa Sulla Laguna is available.